How to Deal with Email

One of the biggest problems that I commonly hear from my friends is that processing email is completely unmanageable. The most important thing to remember is that your attention is the most precious resource that you have, and you need to guard it jealously. All of the following principles flow from this fundamental insight. The following seven steps will get you most of the way towards inbox sanity.

Turn Off Email Notifications

The very first step you need to take to reclaim your valuable and limited attention is to turn off any form of email notification. If your phone vibrates, knock that off immediately. If your mail client gives you a popup or rings or displays a red badge, change the settings. If you are keeping your inbox open in another tab and see new emails coming in, close it. By having your devices constantly pushing email on you, you will be constantly tempted by email and switching between tasks repeatedly, which is a disaster for productivity.

The most common pushback I get on this point is that sometimes there are legitimately urgent messages that need to be answered. In some cases this may be true, but for the vast majority of people what is the worst case scenario? We have a different method of dealing with urgent concerns, and that is called a telephone—call or text will do. If you need to respond to emails for work, go to the people who need you urgently and explain the situation. You are very busy and constant emails are distracting you from important tasks, ask them to give you a quick call when they urgently need your attention.

Unsubscribe from Everything Immediately

By this point, it has probably become habitual to scan over your inbox and either ignore (or preferably archive) specific sources of messages — maybe this is a company that keeps emailing you about its latest deals or products, for instance, or maybe this is some noisy Facebook group that a distant acquaintance thought you would enjoy. Regardless of how quick and easy you think it is to get rid of these things, you are incurring a small penalty of time and attention again and again to even glance at the email. So from now on, you have a new habit: unsubscribe from everything the first time you no longer want to read it. This takes a little bit of upfront time — usually one or two clicks, maybe typing your email or unchecking boxes—but it saves you precious seconds every time you look at your inbox. You would be shocked how quickly you recoup that particular investment.

Some lists are worth staying on—maybe you’re on the mailing list of your favorite author because you actually want to be notified when he’s in town, or maybe you’ve signed up for an email course or some daily tips that you actually read. Maybe your favorite fanfic is constantly being updated, and being notified when the new chapter is up prevents you from obsessively refreshing your browser. Pay attention to your behavior. Once your eyes start preemptively glazing over when you see an address, you know it’s time to unsubscribe.

Create Filters

There is an intermediate step between emails you want to know about immediately and ones that you never want to read, and for this purpose some brilliant software engineers created filters. Any emails that you receive on a regular basis are extremely good candidates for filtering.

For some personal examples, I have a filter that sends all emails originating from Meetup to their own special folder. Any time I am wondering what is going on in town, or if I have a free evening to kill, I have a host of events available to me at the click of a button. I do something similar for mailing lists, which routinely contain interesting information that I do intend to read — at my leisure, that is.

Batch Process Email

Now that you’ve greatly reduced the number of incoming emails, you are in a much better position to deal with your inbox. You have also stopped your devices from constantly distracting you, so you’re not constantly processing emails — from here on out, processing email is a deliberate choice on your part. You will pick exactly when and where you want to deal with emails, and not a moment before. When you have an unbroken block of time — and this may even be worth explicitly scheduling — you should sit down and continue processing emails until you run out of time or are finished. (What does ”finishing” email even mean? Keep reading!)

By the way, in case this is not abundantly clear, you should always do batch processing of replies from a computer with a full keyboard. Mobile keyboards are simply not designed for rapid typing in the same way. The kind of batch processing that you can do on a mobile phone is that of reading and archiving emails — which allows you to focus immediately on responding when you get to a computer. Leave anything that requires a non-urgent response for later.

Minimize Replies

The first principle I introduced was about reducing the number of incoming emails, and now it is time to look at the other side of the equation. Writing emails takes even more time than reading them, so if anything this step is even more critical! You can follow one very simple heuristic here: shorter is better, and replies that never get written are the shortest ones of all. And that’s it!

Ironically, I didn’t learn this lesson for myself until I finally caved in and got myself a smartphone. I am the king of verbose emails, I love to write paragraph after paragraph in response to just about anything. Ask me a question and I will go on at great length. Well, I very quickly gave up on the idea of composing long emails using the smartphone’s keyboard. In fact, I learned to become as parsimonious with my words as possible, because it was so aggravating. And you know what? Nothing changed. If anything, I got faster responses from shorter emails! No one was upset I didn’t provide them with reams of information. This was so striking that I changed my email signature to say: ”Sent from my smartphone, enjoy the unusual brevity.” And I never looked back.

There is one situation where I believe that a quick reply is better than no reply, and those are the emails sitting at the bottom of your inbox the longest, the ones you have been putting off indefinitely because you really want to do them right This was one of my biggest personal challenges in dealing with my own inbox, especially given my propensity towards long emails. It still hurts me that I put off the most important emails for weeks, or months, or sometimes even forever, because I wanted to write a long reply and simply never had the time or motivation. I failed to congratulate people on major life events, or catch up with old friends, or follow up important leads, because I didn’t think I could get away with a quick response. But the truth is, a quick response to an important email is better than no response at all. Please don’t leave the most important parts of your life to ferment at the bottom of your inbox.

Be Realistic

Your colleague sees a funny video and emails it to your group, or an old friend of yours sees an article and thinks of you. While these are kind and even important gestures, there are simply only so many hours in the day. There is already more content out there than we could consume in our entire lives, so we need to prioritize where we direct our attention. One type of email that I tend to keep around is something that seems like it could be really interesting, but never quite get around to looking at. So what is my solution? I collect all of these links and I put them in a separate file or bookmark folder. When I have a spare moment and think about it, I go back and look at them. Some of them you will probably never get around to, and that’s okay. Be realistic about how you are going to spend your time, and don’t waste any of it agonizing over whether or not to consume content.

Inbox Zero

So what is the end result of all of this advice? Quite simply, to have zero emails left in your inbox at the end of processing. This should be the default resting state of your inbox: you are either ignoring email entirely, or your inbox is empty, end of story.

The archive button is your best friend. Every time you finish reading something, archive it. Every time you send a reply, archive it. (Note that Google Labs has a ”Send and Archive” button that seriously comes in handy here.) Every time you add another link to your ”eventually” list, archive it. When you get an email about coordination or scheduling, enter it into your calendar immediate and then archive it.

After your initial quick pass over the inbox to clear out most of the items, everything remaining should be something that is awaiting either immediate reply or action. After you do what is necessary, archive it. If something is sitting in your inbox that you don’t intend to do until later, then add it to your to-do list, flag the email or send it to a special folder, and then archive it.

…and there you have it: a pristine inbox. Doesn’t that feel relaxing? Your inbox induces no cognitive load whatsoever! You are never left feeling guilty, or wondering if something slipped through the cracks, or worrying about replying to important emails. Everything is exactly where you put it, and you know just where to look to find it.

My Current Productivity Stack

One of the main topics of conversation on this blog is productivity, as you can tell by its weighting in the tag cloud below. Much of the discussion thus far has been about productivity hacks, various techniques or environmental factors you can tweak to optimize your performance. What I haven’t talked much about is what my own personal setup looks like. While I expect everyone’s system to be a little different, this at least provides one specific example for people to work from.

[Read more…]

Feeling Overwhelmed While Working?

After our recent productivity webinar, I did some one-on-one IFS work, and I (again) ran into what I think is actually a pretty common not-so-uselful belief:

“Until I’m finished, I can’t feel okay.”

I used to think this way too, that I had to feel overwhelmed and guilty until I got all my important things done. I distinctly remember the IFS I did on myself to address this issue. If you notice yourself running into the problem where you feel bad and overwhelmed even when you’re actually in the middle of doing work, I’d recommend reading on and seeing if anything I say clicks with you.

[Read more…]

Productivity 101 Recap!

On Tuesday night, we gathered together to discuss the productivity techniques that me and Divia actually use in our daily lives (instead of the ones we think would be helpful, but never use in practice).

Some of the main topics we covered were:

  • Goal setting and formulation
  • Reducing cognitive load
  • Utilizing social pressure
  • Taking very small steps to get started
  • And many more smaller tricks and tips!

You can listen to a recording of the webinar here. If you listen through to the end, it will direct you to a feedback form, and we’d love to hear what you guys liked and what you want more of.

Thanks for showing up!

O, Fragile Productivity!

As long as I stick to my systems I don’t get sick very often, and thus I sometimes forget what it’s like. Getting enough sleep seems to render me immune to infections, though sometimes I stay up late or wake up too early. If I do start to feel a cold coming on, a complete water fast for 1-3 days will almost always knock it out before it takes hold.

But I don’t always take good care of myself, and then occasionally I have to pay the price.

A couple weeks ago I caught a nasty cold. It knocked me completely out of commission for about three days, as judged by blank entries in my goal tracking system. I figured I would rest up for a few days, mostly lying around the house, sleeping, reading and playing computer games, and then I would jump back on my horse and keep going. Oh how wrong I was… [Read more…]

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #10: Actively Recover and Try Again

Suppose you have tried everything above and you still can’t seem to bring yourself to work.  First, I want you to repeat step two and show yourself a little compassion.  Did you do that?  Good.  I’ll bet you’re feeling better already!

So given that you can’t seem to get yourself to work, what should you do instead?  When locked in internal conflict, we will often take some form of default action (a common one these days is to browse the internet).  This form of procrastination rarely feels very fulfilling or regenerative.  This is like a drowning man treading water – you’re not getting any closer to shore!  Instead, recognize that you are refusing to work in that moment, and engage in active recovery.  Make a list of your most fun activities, the things that will leave you feeling the most energized and happy, and commit yourself to enjoying them fully and without reservation for a period of time.  After that time is up, take your renewed energy and good mood and get right back on the horse!  You will undoubtedly have an easier time than you did from a place of unhappy resistance.

Note that sometimes we are legitimately tired – most people in the United States are getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night, and artificial lighting can wreak havoc on our body’s natural circadian rhythm.  When you have a low energy level, everything in life seems harder.  In that case, the best thing you can possibly do for your productivity is to rest!  Employers are starting to realize the importance of napping at work, so if you happen to work for one of those forward thinking companies or for yourself this is an easy solution.  Otherwise, I suggest setting a timer, closing your eyes, and allowing yourself to free associate: do not think of anything in particular or try to hold onto any thoughts (especially about work), let your mind wander undirected.  Afterwards you will feel refreshed and ready to go again.

This concludes my Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately series.  I am sure that you will find one or another of these tips to be helpful – leave a comment or drop me a line and tell me how they worked for you!  Please feel free to pass these along to friends, family, coworkers, or anyone else who you think could use this advice.  And be sure to leave us a note in the comments to tell us what techniques you have come up with, so everyone can share your success!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #9: Commit to One Minute

The hardest part of any task is getting started – or maybe even before getting started, while you’re still busy worrying about doing the task instead of getting it done!  Luckily inertia works in both directions: once you’re already underway with a project you realize it isn’t nearly as bad as you originally thought.  So the trick here is to overcome that activation cost, to get yourself started working at all.

Fortunately there is a very easy solution to this problem: commit yourself to working for one minute.  How bad could 60 seconds of work possibly be?  The great thing about a one minute commitment is that it is a one minute commitment – if you legitimately find the work you are doing to be that torturous, you have kept your commitment to yourself and you can stop and figure out something else to deal with the problem.  I have rarely seen people object to this level of commitment, but if that feels like too much you can choose an even shorter time period to fit your needs.

Once you have begun working, you will find that the task is rarely as bad as you anticipated.  In fact, you might even find it easier to continue working than to stop abruptly and switch to something else!  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like leaving anything unfinished, so I will persist until the task I am working on is complete.  After you master the art of starting, you can switch to a system like the Pomodoro Technique and commit yourself to working for 25 minutes or more!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #8: Break it into Sub-Steps

One of the most common causes of procrastination is that the task at hand feels incredibly daunting – the project is so large that it seems impossible to complete.  Somehow even thinking about the project makes you feel tired!  When you imagine the project it feels like a giant monolith in your mind, leaving you unable to gain traction anywhere.  No wonder you don’t want to work on it!

Fortunately there is a very effective technique for dealing with this particular objection: break down the task into smaller components.  Starting from a large nebulous goal, make an exhaustive list of everything you need to accomplish to get there.  Figure out which step needs to happen first, and then break that one down into sub-steps as well.  Keep following this procedure until you get down to a single step that you can take immediately to get you closer to your goal.  This tiny step feels much more manageable now, doesn’t it?  (Note that if this sub-step still feels daunting, I’ll bet that you can break it down even further.)

Now that you have the first specific action you need to take, I want you to close your eyes and imagine doing the task.  Imagine it right down to the very motor actions that you need to execute: imagine moving your arms, your hands, speaking, walking, whatever is required to complete your task.  See yourself finish your task, and then imagine how good it will feel to have this step completed.  Once you have finished this visualization, accomplishing the actual task feels like second nature – you’re practically already done!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #7: Be Mindful

The most common response to encountering resistance is to try harder, feeling a host of negative emotions about the situation, and retreating into thoughts that cycle repeatedly with no resolution in sight.  By now you may have experienced this resistance so often that it feels like is just the way the world is, that it is a necessary part of working and couldn’t be any other way.  I want you to pause for a moment and ask yourself: how do you know that you are actually experiencing resistance?

The phenomenon of resistance or effort is ultimately a sensation that resides somewhere in your body.  When we get wrapped up in our head we are diverting our limited attention towards our own unproductive thoughts – valuable attention which could be directed elsewhere.  By merely trying harder we are trying to push away that sensation, we are wishing that our subjective experience were different in that moment.  When you next notice yourself feeling resistance, I want you to pause for a moment.  Take a deep breath.  Close your eyes.  Focus your awareness onto the sensations in your body that you have identified as resistance.  Sit with that sensation for a time and observe it.  Identify exactly what is going on.  When you notice that your attention has drifted, gently release whatever thought arose and return to the sensation.

Once you have observed this sensation, you may notice it has different qualities.  Sometimes you may turn your attention to the sensation and it doesn’t actually appear to be there, in which case you can resume what you were doing without conflict.  Or maybe this sensation oscillates back and forth, sometimes it is present and sometimes it isn’t – and in fact, this can happen within a fraction of a second!  How weird, right?

The great thing about observing your resistance from the outside is that it won’t seem inevitable anymore. Once you can say, “Huh, I seem to be resisting this,” you’re more than halfway there.

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #6: Turn it into a Game!

Work couldn’t possibly be fun… or could it?  The very word conjures up images of endless factory lines with single repetitive tasks for hours on end, or row upon row of cubicles with people chained to their desks…  Of course this is all very melodramatic, but you get the point: work is not something that most people think of as being fun.  Why that’s almost the very definition of work!

Let’s turn things on their head for a minute.  Remember how to be curious and ask yourself: how could you turn work into a game?  I can think of one way right off the bat… here you are, trying to get a stubborn primate to diligently execute some boring task it doesn’t even want to do!  What a ridiculous situation this is!  Trying to get this primate to cooperate seems harder than herding cats sometimes.  So turn your resistance into a game.  From a place of curiosity and compassion, start trying different things to see how the primate responds.  Could you actually trick him into doing work… and enjoying it?

First try making the work itself into a game.  Throw yourself a party every time you accomplish a goal, and really celebrate that victory!  Play it up, because you deserve it.  Figure out how long you think this task is going to take, add another half of that to your time estimate, and then turn it into a race against yourself!  Then turn increasing productivity into a game too.  Try giving the primate incentives: set goals and rewards for yourself, and make sure to actually treat yourself if you reach them.  Maybe keep tasty food on hand for this purpose, or commit to paying for a massage or letting yourself goof off for a bit.  Go down the list of recommendations I am giving you and try each one in turn, see if it works and why it does or doesn’t.  Keep doing what works, figure out what doesn’t, and how you need to tweak it for your next experiment.  When you are treating productivity as a game, the consequences feel much less dire and it is easy to be in good spirits about the whole thing.  This is how work becomes play!